“If you ask two Cubans about Fidel Castro, one might love him and one might hate him – but ask the same about Celia Sánchez, and everyone loved her,” said a clothing store clerk. “She connected with the people; she was the mother of all Cubans.”
Late last year, I decided to visit Cuba after reading One Day In December: Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution, a biography by Nancy Stout. As a writer, cyclist and independent solo traveller for more than 20 years, the more I learned about Sánchez, the more I not only identified with her, but also came to respect and admire her. I’ve never felt more connected to someone I’ve never met. So, I hired a female bike guide for a week to cycle 400 kilometres along Cuba’s southwest coast where Sánchez lived and fought during the Cuban revolution of the 1950s.
As Fidel’s right-hand woman, she was more than a fighter. She supplied weapons, food and supplies, often faking pregnancy to get through checkpoints. She hid secret messages in the fragrant national flower, tucking it behind her ear to avoid suspicion. She wore giant skirts to hide guns; she created schools and hotels for farmers. In my view, she was the glue to the entire operation.
At the bus station, on our way to Santiago de Cuba with my guide, Airelis Gomez, a wonderful energetic cyclist leading her first solo trip, Gomez remembered what she was taught about Sánchez in grade school.
“We Cubans say that Celia was made of honey and iron. She was sweet, and strong at the same time.”
Pedalling out of Santiago the next day, I noticed Sánchez everywhere – a school named in her honour, a giant billboard of her and Raul Castro’s wife, Vilma Espín; it read: Heroines of the Revolution.
Our first night we stay at a casa particulare – a Cuban homestay – in the town of Galeones. I asked the owners about Sánchez. The young mother ran across the street and fetched another woman – a librarian who specializes in Sánchez. “She introduced women to the fight,” the librarian said.
The next day, we left civilization and rode alongside the dense forest and fog-covered mountains of the Sierra Maestra. Now a national park, it was the strategic site of independence fighting and home to Canadiancia del Plata – the rebel army’s headquarters. To our left was ocean. At times, the road disappeared where chunks of pavement had been ripped away by fierce hurricanes and storms. A local yelled something in Spanish as we passed: “What did he say?” I asked my guide. Her answer: “He said we’ll never make it on that road with these bikes.” It was treacherous navigating through the rocks, but he clearly underestimated female cyclists.
Passing golden fields of hay shimmering in the wind and tall stalks of green sugar cane, we finally arrived at our casa, exhausted and parched (I ran out of water 15 kms earlier). The owner, Norvis, placed a glass of lemon water in front of me. Before he returned with a bowl of sugar to sweeten the drink, I had finished the water. His wife Yolanda worked at the nearby hotel decades ago until they decided to operate a more profitable casa.
Yolanda was one of the first employees of the hotel Sánchez developed; her intention had been that it be a farmers’ resort – “somewhere they can relax and rest and take their families,” said Yolanda, who ran to her kitchen to find a picture. She returned with one of her at the hotel, and another of her with a group of students gathered around Castro; she was especially proud of this photo.
The hotel operated as a resort exclusive to farmers for only three years. After Sánchez died, the hotel turned into a tourist-only resort. And while Cubans are now permitted, it was mostly foreigners when I visited.
The next day was our longest – 90 km pedaling slowly, our heads down, in the bikes’ lowest gear. Sweating profusely, salt formed around my eyes and stained my jersey. Around lunchtime, seeking shade, we walked the bikes to a gazebo at the trailhead of an 11-km hike to the top of Pico Torquino. At 1,975 metres, it’s Cuba’s highest peak. In 1953, just before the revolution, Sánchez and her father hiked to the summit carrying a bust of José Marti, the first national independence war hero and poet, to commemorate his centenary. I imagined her huffing it through the jungle with this monstrous statue on her back – all in the name of the revolution.
By day four, we finally started riding flat land, but headwinds coming into Sánchez’s town of her birth, Media Luna, were brutal; rice farmers walking beside us were moving faster. When we finally reached the casa, we collapsed. Sitting on the porch, we drank multiple beers, looking at the green-and-white house across the street, Sánchez’s birth home, now a museum. We sat in silence as we watched the horses-and-buggies bring uniformed kids home from school.
The next day we visited the Sánchez home surrounded by white ginger flowers, also called mariposa or the butterfly flower, named for its two wing-like petals. It’s also the flower Sánchez used to hide her messages.
“Her father educated her the way a man educates his son,” said the guide. When Sánchez’s father discovered she was holding clandestine rebel meetings, he gave her his monogrammed rifle. The rifle is in a glass case near some of her belongings – a handmade pair of snakeskin high heels and matching purse; a form-fitting white dress made of a burlap sugar bag and an exotic necklace of coins from Mexico – a gift from her father. And all around, pictures. One in particular strikes me: Sánchez with a lover who eventually died from a tumour. She would never marry.
Finally reaching Havana, I finished my trip slightly disappointed because I never met anyone who knew her. I’m not entirely surprised; Sánchez died in 1980 of lung cancer; she was 60. The Cuban heroine also died without having children – not entirely surprising, either, as her single-minded focus as the mother of all Cubans was all-consuming.
As a travel writer, Melanie Chambers has written about crashing a car in Italy; getting mugged in Buenos Aires and, most recently, cycling 900 kms across South Africa in a mountain bike race. When not travelling, she teaches food and travel writing in Western’s Writing Studies Department.